“Deep smarts” is the tacit, specific business knowledge only one or two people in your company possess. How do you ensure you aren’t left vulnerable if these people suddenly leave the company?
Deep smarts is business intelligence owned by individual people within a company. Leonard and Swap, who wrote the book on deep smarts (literally), describe deep smart as tacit knowledge, shaped by beliefs and based on life experiences and know-how. Deep smarts grows over time with experience and cannot be accrued from any internal manual, newsletter or webinar. In a way, it is about “knowing what to do” without having ever knowingly learned it. There could be one person in your company with vital deep smarts about how a specific section of your business operates. Once this person has left the company, you may wake up one day to realize no one else has any idea how this specific section of the business operations should be handled. This poses quite a pickle in a hectic work environment, so it’s best to find a way to detect, communicate, and transfer deep smarts within your company from one employee to as many as possible.
The Delicate Ecosystem of Deep Smarts
Management or HR team must be fully aware of, understand, and appreciate the different types of deep smarts employees may possess. It is possible deep smarts flourishes best in a specific location, in relation to specific people or tasks, and hasty alterations may mess with the delicate ecosystem of deep smarts. For example, there could be an employee who is excelling in her current position. Let’s say her name is Elizabeth, and she’s doing a good job at managing her small team of loyal employees. It seems like moving Elizabeth up in the chain of command, altering her tasks or changing her team wouldn’t make a difference in her job success. It is possible, however, that an aspect of what makes Elizabeth such a fine manager is hidden in the deep smarts of her daily work. If the task or surroundings change, the pieces of the complex puzzle get mixed and deep smarts gets lost in the whirlwind.
It is almost impossible for an individual person to step outside of themselves and be able to make an estimation of what parameters of their success are caused by a specific type of deep smarts. Because of this, it is especially important for managers and HR to understand where an employees ability to succeed in a specific work comes from, and how this pipeline for success may be maintained.
Don’t Let Your Deep Smarts Slip Away
Physics Today published an article concerning the potentially devastating implications of expertise knowledge concentrating to only one person. If one person alone holds vital company information, what happens if that person is suddenly lost? The article discussed death and succession among Finland's nuclear waste experts, and they presented the worrisome case of a man only known as "Seppo". Seppo was a nuclear genius working within the field of nuclear waste repository, and when he died, it suddenly became clear he alone possessed great deals of vital intelligence when it came to nuclear waste repository in the plant he worked in. Yikes! Another company continuously suffering from intellectual loss as deep smarts disappears along with its retiring engineers is, well, NASA.
While most of us don’t have to worry about passing on information about nuclear waste repositioning or aeronautics research, all companies lose cultural and intellectual knowledge whenever someone leaves the company being the only bearer of vital information.
The Danger of Individual Coaching
In their book, Leonard and Swap suggest using "knowledge coaches" to develop deep smarts through observation and decision making. In their coaching model, it is up to the coaches themselves to guide their individual "knowledge students" through the learning process, either with presentations and lectures or more dialogue-driven models of learning. While the knowledge coaches aren't mentors in the typical sense (as the relationship between the coach and the learner differs in the levels of engagement and learning methods), there is a mentor-actor element to this type of learning. This presents several issues as well.
This type of knowledge transfer, one without the element of exchange, takes up a lot of resources and only ends up benefitting one party. The success of the coaching is also difficult to measure, as deep smarts is tacit, not tangible, and elusive in nature. The largest issue concerning this type of knowledge transfer is that by simply transferring knowledge from one person to another, we are still not escaping the original issue, which is how to gain company-wide use of deep smarts possessed by an individual. Even if one individual is able to fully and completely transfer all their deep smarts to another individual, it still remains unshared. This is why companies need to adopt better ways to share knowledge with everyone in the company in a simple and rewarding way.
Create a Culture of Open Knowledge Sharing
While gaining a new, talented and hungry generation of workers, companies may be too eager to start accumulating new knowledge that they don't think of transferring internal accrued knowledge to the new generation. On the other hand, it is possible more experienced workers feel threatened by the new wave of workforce and don't see the upside of sharing their hard-earned knowledge with people who are new in the company. Both of these viewpoints are harmful to the company culture and hinder corporate performance and innovation.
By creating a knowledge sharing culture in which employees communicate with each other openly, deep smarts can be spread throughout the company. Recognizing the importance of deep smarts and the people having it is in key position when it comes to enabling a culture where deep smarts can be shared. There might be interest in creating work pairs for this type of knowledge sharing (most obvious one being a junior and senior in similar positions), but this may only lead to further knowledge silos. It is more beneficial to create a forum and a culture which enables professional knowledge to be shared easily in a way which allows people from different departments to take in the knowledge as well.